Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy

There is something about an influential work that can make it rather boring.  When something has been so groundbreaking that its defining aspects have been shamelessly ripped off over the years, much of the work’s weight is lost, despite the fact that it did indeed break ground first.  “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the original Tron are two such examples.  However, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy remains a work of unparalleled uniqueness.  It is not without its familiar genre stereotypes, but somewhere along the line, it cleverly stepped out of the box that most westerns are trapped in.

The music in the first installment is perfectly minimalistic.  Somber and eerie, with whistles, a tolling bell, and ominous cracking whip, it sets the stage for the movie during its opening credit sequence before any of the plot even begins.  The trilling whistle repeats itself pretty frequently throughout the film, breaking the silence in an even more disconcerting manner.

There is also an innate beauty to the camera work.  A Fistful of Dollars is a perfect example of how undeveloped technique can be charming.  Primitive as the cinematography is, it is surprisingly enjoyable to feel the camera bounce along as it follows a posse riding into action; beautifully capturing their speed and urgency.  This is all the more impressive in a movie from a time where most films were as lethargic as could be. Brilliance shines through when we see things like a close up on a hand cocking a rifle, and then a lightning fast zoom onto the face of the gunman.

By the advent of The Good the Bad and the Ugly Leone clearly had a more tightly defined vision, and film technique of the era had caught up with him.  Less mobile, in this installment the watcher is treated to a variety of close ups, most of the extreme variety.  We see the shifty eyes of desparados, and the twitches of fingers on gun handles.  The second film’s defining sequence is a drawn out scene — in which three men face eachother down in a standoff — with tension that you could cut with a knife, all culminating to an earpiercing gunshot.  In the age we live in, where films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver own the box office, it appears that the concept of a tight marriage of music and image may have begun here.  The scene is extended it seems, to fit the runtime of the mariachi song playing, and truth be told Morricone’s rising score does most of the tension building here.

For A Few Dollars More is the most well made of the series.  It features a few standout scenes, namely one fantastic duel of markmanship and a three man showdown, much like its predecessor, but is not quite as fresh.  Like most fantastic trilogies, it cannot rest on the ripe originality of the first film, or the upending of expectations of the immediate sequel.  It isn’t bad, and it will hold most attention spans for longer than the average contemporary release, but when faced with the raw power of TGTBTU, it pales slightly.

Still, these are fantastic films that are dated enough to be mostly family friendly, unique enough to still feel fresh, sophisticated enough to engross, and bombastic enough to remain classics.

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